Outside the original city walls of Rome, Christians gathered to bury their dead. But rather than cremate or bury their dead in graveyards, Christians in the second thorough fifth century placed their dead inside the catacombs or networks of underground passageways. Christians were not the only people to use catacombs, but the Christian network is the largest and most widely visited today. Miles of underground passageways were built outside of the city walls to obey the Roman law of the times that the dead must be buried away from the city.
For five centuries the catacombs were used for burial, although very rarely as hiding places during persecution. The catacombs were still visited frequently however, especially by raiding forces from enemies through the eighth and ninth centuries. Finally, church leaders moved all valuable relics inside church walls for safe keeping from raiders and the catacombs were all but lost over time. In the Middle Ages, many catacombs were lost entirely to memory. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that Antonio Bosio began to excavate and find these lost artifacts.
Inside the catacombs, you’ll find many styles of graves. The first graves were rows of small rectangular cut outs dug into the earth for a single body. After a time, family tombs, or arcosolium were constructed in much the same manner, but larger. Cubicula is the term used for a true family tomb which is a separate room. The forma is dug into the ground rather than along the walls and these are especially common near the tombs of martyrs. Finally, a crypt is a small church or sanctuary constructed most often around the tomb of a martyr.
Visiting the Catacombs
The Christian catacombs are a location sought after and visited annually by thousands of pilgrims wanting to seek out the early beginnings of the Christian church. A visit into the Catacombs should not be take lightly as a simple tourist stop, but more of a religious experience – especially as others around you might very well be at the end of a long pilgrimage.
There are five catacombs around Rome available for viewing. All five are open from 9am to noon and again from 2pm to 5pm. The price of admission is 5 €. For additional information about touring the catacombs, contact each location directly:
- The catacombs of St. Agnes, 00162 -Via Nomentana, 349 – tel. 06 861 08 40
- The catacombs of Priscilla, 00199 – via Salaria, 430 – tel. & fax 06 86 20 62 72
- The catacombs of Domitilla, 00147 – via delle Sette Chiese, 282/0 – tel. 06 511 03 42 / 06 513 39 56 fax 06 513 54 61
- The catacombs of St. Sebastian, 00179 – via Appia Antica, 136 – tel. 06 788 70 35 / fax 06 784 37 45
- The catacombs of St.Callixtus,00179 – Via Appia Antica, 126 – tel. 06 513 01 51 / 06 513 01 580 – fax 06 513 01 567